House Proud: Sculptor Bruce Stillman took a swing at living a dream and filled his front yard with art, animals and 13 holes of golf.
MINNETRISTA, Minn. — If you botch the first hole on the Big Stone Mini Golf course (and you probably will), Bruce Stillman suggests you return the ball to the fairway and putt again. The par-6 hole called the “Dead Tree Forest” is a stand of tall trunks. Forget a straight shot to the cup; you can hardly find the flag.
“Who’s to say you’re not just starting a new game?” Stillman reasoned on a recent morning.
It seems only polite to follow his rules. Not only did he design and build the course, it is also his front yard. In a sense, you could say that Big Stone itself — the golf course, the sculpture park, the overhauled farmhouse with a goat pen out the back door — is a mulligan on a life-scale. This homestead of oddities and wonderments is what Stillman, 54, invented after winding down his first career as a commercially successful sculptor.
He lined up his first putt and tapped his neon-green ball into the thicket.
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The second hole, a stiff par 3, breaks a wobbly 6 feet from left to right. Stillman calls it “Banking on Mound.” If there’s any place in America left to pun, it’s a mini-golf course: Mound is the name of the nearby lakeside suburb, on the western edge of the Minneapolis metro, where Stillman banked his fate.
It’s a landscape of country clubs, hobby farms and marinas, with “some of the most expensive real estate in Minnesota,” said Heidi Hoy, a sculptor who has lived intermittently at Big Stone as Stillman’s companion.
When he first bought an old dairy farm here in 1991, he wanted to try his hand at landscape and environmental art: something in the spirit of the British site-sculptor Andy Goldsworthy. Another influence was a piece of popular American cinema called “Overboard,” in which reluctant lovers played by Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell create a Putt-Putt Seven Wonders of the World.
Hoy would end up being Hawn’s character in this remake. After separating from her husband, a major league baseball team executive, she moved with her two sons into the shambling 1846 farmhouse. Stillman roughed it for these two years in the unheated milking barn. “I could reprogram my life’s ambition in this barn,” he said.
Originally, Stillman intended to install a mini-golf course in a public park. But local politicians did not seem to get his vision, something that baffles him to this day. That’s when he got to thinking, he said, that “this big farm field was like a blank canvas for a painter.”
He started laying out the first seven holes at home, even before he had cleared the zoning. It’s easy enough to see the appeal of the course now. Each year, 15,000 to 20,000 visitors pay $7 (or $6, for young golfers) to play a round at Big Stone. But would a small-town city council member understand the appeal of erecting a backyard Stonehenge and fire pit for marshmallow roasts?
“One of my mottoes is, it’s easier to get forgiveness than it is to get permission,” Stillman said.
Back on the second hole, he kicked a few twigs off his putting line. Big Stone’s greenskeeper, Al Soderstrom, recently flew over his handlebars on the rails-to-trails bike path that runs next to the 17-acre property. Someone would have to power-wash the artificial turf in his stead, Stillman said.
Big Stone is not a theoretical golf course in the style of, say, Donald Judd: a square ball sealed in a wood box. Stillman’s work has always been accessible. A prime example stood on the third hole.
“All the old mini-golf courses had a windmill,” he said. “This one has a kinetic sculpture.”
The 15-foot-tall piece comprised a half-dozen swinging rings, perfectly counterbalanced by polished steel blobs, and it rested on a raw stone base. During the tech boom of the late ’90s, Stillman charged $35,000 for pieces like this one. He ran a studio with three full-time employees and sold his work out of galleries across the vacationlands of the scenic West: Sedona and Scottsdale, Ariz.; Palm Desert, Calif.; Aspen and Vail, Colo. Call it the Kokopelli belt.
“I was making a sculpture a week and selling a sculpture a week,” Stillman said.
He had been developing his style since he was 16. Douglas Flanders, the Minneapolis gallerist, first came across a teenage Stillman when he was hawking his wares at outdoor craft shows.
“He would have different pieces in different boxes,” Flanders said. “You would pick and choose,” and Stillman would assemble them into a functioning kinetic work. “Essentially, you could buy a pretty nice sculpture for $60.”
Stillman found one of his first patrons at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. His name was Dr. Hugh Butt and (Bart Simpson could not make this up) he was a world-renowned gastroenterologist. Butt bought up a dozen of Stillman’s sculptures and introduced them to prominent patients.
One piece became a gift to Empress Farah Pahlavi, wife of the last shah of Iran. Stillman once spotted another of his large works in the background of a photo spread with the film director Robert Altman. The artist could hardly keep track of his work.
“He sold a ton,” Flanders said.
Stillman said, “I’d build a nice piece, sell it to someone and then it would disappear.” At the time, he added, “it never bothered me.”
The experience at Big Stone is the opposite. The work stays in one place, and the viewers come and go.
“For many years I was in the studio, grinding metal and polishing it with a few helpers,” Stillman said. “You’d feel isolated. Now, you hear people laughing and screaming, having fun with your artwork.”
Some people would be driven mad by the happy caterwaul — it’s almost a permanent sound installation. Stillman shrugged and said, “It works for me.”
After the fifth hole, Stillman was shooting 6-under-par, a score that was all the more impressive because he hadn’t found the time to play a full round in two years.
As Hoy observed: “His artwork is fraught with humor and levity and playfulness. But in order to get that work accomplished, he’s ferocious.”
Recently, Stillman has been planning a sizable expansion of the sculpture grounds. Fulfilling big dreams takes a big budget. He estimated that he has poured more than $300,000 into the course.
And big tools, too: Stillman creates a lot of his art these days with a $49,000 utility boom truck.
“You can’t imagine how delicately and beautifully he can operate the boom truck, balancing all these objects,” Hoy said.
The truck can make easy work of an 8-ton block of granite. Which is fortunate, because Stillman has perhaps 1,000 tons of rock littered around the property. The majority of the big stones came from the 1961 demolition of the old Metropolitan Building, the lost jewel of the Minneapolis skyline.
He paid good money for 15 carved ornamental pieces. “It’s very expensive being a rock lover,” Stillman said. After a spring flood, he got another 200 massive blocks on clearance.
Stillman, as a matter of habit, does not pay retail. If he can help it, he does not pay at all.
When a local bridge-repair crew needed access to the parking lot at his old downtown art studio, he struck a swap for 40 truckloads of salvaged cobblestone. Delivery included, of course.
Some of this material now makes up Goat Mountain, where Stillman keeps three Alpine dairy goats, a Nubian and two fainting goats. (Big Stone must have the only golf clubhouse that sells goat food.) And cobblestones clad Stillman’s new garage, which looks like a treasure vault for gnomes.
Characteristically, he has spent more on decorating the garage than on the car inside (a Toyota Matrix). “I made money to do more artwork, not to buy a BMW,” he said. “If you’re going to look at something every day, why not make something that you would love to see?”
Ten truckloads of cobblestone remain in the horse and miniature mule pasture. The stones, like all things, will reveal their purpose in time.
Take, for instance, the Chris-Craft boat, turtled over the seventh hole. Stillman discovered it shipwrecked on a neighbor’s junk-lawn and hauled it away for $500. For years, it languished in dry dock, leaking gas in the parking lot.
“I asked him, ‘Bruce, what are you going to do with that boat?’ ” Hoy said.
And then one day the answer occurred to him: flip it upside down, gut the engines and cut portholes in the hull.
The green follows a horseshoe shape, with a metal ramp at the elbow. Stillman lined up his putt and took a hard stroke. The ball will sometimes carom into the air. Which is fine, because the stained-glass windows are actually made of shatterproof resin. This is the raw material for eyeglass lenses.
An acquaintance had “a whole batch contaminated with microdust,” he said. “I ended up taking that off of him.” A thousand pounds of the stuff. And while he was at it, he bought the extruder machine, a kind of “giant hot-glue gun.”
Stillman birdied the seventh hole, but gave back two strokes on the eighth. You could try to save three putts by ricocheting the ball off a rock on the 10th hole. This sunflower maze, called “The Spiral,” is Stillman’s favorite hole and possibly his master stroke. Here, in a cow field, he has created a putt-putt homage to “Spiral Jetty,” the 1970 earth-art monument by Robert Smithson.
Even with a three-worker crew, Stillman sunk eight weeks into crafting the sunflower spiral. He had originally intended to add a new hole to the course each year, but for now he has stalled at No. 13.
This hole has a feel of finality to it, anyhow. Stillman tapped his ball up a ramp and it rolled back down. Mini-golf may be the closest most of us get to really understanding Sisyphus. At last, he plunked the fifth putt down a chute and onto a huge table of granite.
Over the course of two months, Stillman had painstakingly drilled out a sluiceway. The hole is called “Gently Down the Stream.” The ball plopped into the vermiform channel and began to float toward a hole in the rock. On the final scorecard, it doesn’t matter if you hit a birdie or a bogey: all balls go to the same place and they don’t come back.
Some people meander through the sculpture garden at this point. Others hustle off to the parking lot and their next appointment. Stillman was already home and he had nowhere else to be. The goats were snoozing on Goat Mountain. Another band of children was just arriving at the first hole, adding their hollers to the chorus. Stillman sat on a big stone and watched the green globe bobbing on its way.
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream.